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Karadzic trial cold comfort for rape victims

Despite appearance of alleged Balkans war criminal in Hague, women look to EU ahead of accession moves.


 “A continuing failure to comprehensively investigate and prosecute crimes of sexual violence before international and national courts means that those responsible still manage to evade justice and impunity prevails,” it said. “Without meaningful justice and full and effective reparation, victims continue to suffer the effects of these horrific crimes. Antiquated discriminatory laws and procedures result in survivors not being treated with dignity or given protection and support. In most cases they face stigmatization rather than the recognition and vital assistance they need to help them rebuild their lives ... Many survivors are unemployed and live in poverty and cannot afford even prescribed medicines.”


Andric-Ruzicic says this situation is simply unacceptable and that the EU, such a staunch defender of human rights, should also see it that way. She says that while the EU is giving Sarajevo lists of things that must be accomplished before consideration for accession status, caring for rape victims must not be “something that’s allowed to be neglected."


"OK border controls, OK biometric passports, OK ecological control of food, OK highways,” she said with mild exasperation, referring to standards Bosnia would have to meet to qualify for EU membership. “But this is a country where almost 60 percent of population is traumatized in one way or another and 40 percent has PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. So think what the real priority is!”


It should be hard to discount the impact of mass rape on the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Though sexual assault has been used as a weapon of war since throughout human history, it was the prevalent and premeditated use in Bosnia, not exclusively but primarily by Bosnian Serbs against Bosnian Muslims, that took the act to a new level of both atrocity and international awareness.


The Amnesty report also criticizes the International Criminal Tribunal on the former Yugoslavia for the relatively small number of rape cases it’s prosecuted — just 18 since 2003. But the tribunal has undoubtedly played a key role in pushing the evolution of international criminal law with respect to acts of sexual violence.


While technically on the books since 1949 in Article 27 of the Fourth Geneva Convention as an “outlawed” tactic of war, rape was not prosecuted with any great interest until the last 15 years. The United Nations’ war-crimes tribunal on Rwanda in 1998 became the first court to decide that rape could be considered genocide if the intent was to destroy the group the victim belonged to.


In 2001, several Bosnian Serb soldiers were convicted at the tribunal of crimes against humanity for using rape as “part of a systematic and widespread campaign,” proving that orders, participation or at least indifference went all the way up the military chain of command.


But whatever convictions are obtained for perpetrators, it is still the victims who suffer a life sentence. Despite the high percentage of the population violated by rape, it is still considered a stigma in Bosnian culture, which keeps women from reporting it, much less testifying against their abusers.

Meriijana Sadovic, head of the International Justice/International Criminal Tribunal on the former Yugoslavia project at the International Center for War and Peace Reporting, says despite the difficulties, women like Semka Agic must continue to demand the system give them justice. “It is their right,” she said. “They have to insist that as many people as possible suspected of wartime rape are put on trial.”


Just as important, she noted, is that the Bosnian state step up and provide the reparations that victims are due and the psychological and social support they need.


Andric-Ruzicic also has a personal reason for wanting these cases seen through to sentencing. As the mother of a young daughter, she said, “I don’t want that we only open this story after 50 years. I want that when my daughter is my age, she knows the truth ... and lives in a society where the truth is known.”


Back in The Hague, the dig for the truth will be getting underway. Karadzic, as Bosnian Serb commander, famously told BBC reporter David Lomax in 1993 that the stories of mass rape were “absolutely shameless” fabrications. “We can prove that it is all lies,” he insisted.

Now he has his chance.